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Brokeback Mountain

Charles Wuorinen’s opera to a libretto by original author Annie Proulx has its American premiere with Daniel Okulitch and Glenn Seven Allen in the leading roles.

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Daniel Okulitch as Ennis del Mar and Glenn Seven Allen as Jack Twist in a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of “Brokeback Mountain” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

As the second installment in its annual LGBT Pride Series, the New York City Opera is presenting the American premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s 2014 ambitious and earnest opera, Brokeback Mountain to a libretto by original author Annie Proulx who wrote the short story that also inspired the hit film version. Commissioned by the New York City Opera in 2008 by then General Director Gerard Mortier, the world premiere took place in Madrid where he went after resigning from NYCO. Two of the original singers, Daniel Okulitch who created the role of Ennis del Mar and Heather Buck as Alma Beers appear in the New York production at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, along with conductor Kazem Abdullah who conducted the German premiere in Aachen in 2014. Director Jacopo Spirei who also staged the Salzburg production does fine work with the performers along with sets that often get in the way of the story and the storytelling.

Proulx’s libretto stays extremely faithful to her original story: introverted Ennis del Mar, a ranch hand, and extroverted Jack Twist, a rodeo cowboy, two 20 year olds, meet on Brokeback Mountain, Wyoming, during the summer of 1963 while they are sheepherding as a twosome alone on the range. At first shy with each other, they eventually become friends and ultimately lovers for the time they are on the mountain, something which surprises both of them in homophobic Wyoming. At the end of the summer, Ennis marries his fiancée Alma and Jack travels to the Texas rodeo circuit where he meets and marries Lureen whose father owns a lucrative farm equipment business. Both men are faithful husbands but can’t stop thinking about each other.

Reunited four years later, their passion erupts but the cautious and withdrawn Ennis will not consider a life together. Instead they meet for fishing trips four times a year for the next fourteen years, while their wives suspect but say nothing about their meetings until both of their marriages fall apart. Eventually, their separation is too much for Jack who wants to build a ranch together but tragic circumstances transpire to keep them permanently apart. When it is finally too late, the lonely Ennis admits to himself that he has loved Jack all along. Told in two acts and 22 scenes, Proulx’s libretto is extremely literal, avoiding poetic flights in the emotional scenes, but also told in a shorthand which leaves huge gaps between the years that were filled in by the imagination while reading the story. A new ghost scene for Lureen’s dead and offstage father is ludicrous rather than revealing.

Heather Buck as Alma and Daniel Okulitch as Ennis in a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of “Brokeback Mountain” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

While the score is both serious and complex, Wuorinen’s chilly atonal style may not have been the best choice for this material. The mellow, deep orchestral music (which is different from what the performers are singing) captures the sinister effect of the mountain, but does not encapsulate the romantic side in what has been called one of the great love stories of the last 25 years. It is as though the music is intended to reflect only the storms raging on Brokeback Mountain but the storyline is a good deal more than that. It also never suggests the Far West where this story is set, scrupulously avoiding melodies or motives that would be part of the lives of cowboys and ranchers. The continued snatches of percussion and trumpets make the music sound disconnected and resemble a movie score for a film that only wants music to underline certain dramatic scenes.

As Ennis del Mar is an extremely introverted character, his emotions are internal for most of the opera and hard to capture in music as we almost never hear him reveal his inner thoughts. While the movie was able to focus on facial expressions or the lack of them, a stage opera doesn’t have that option. The lack of melody is sorely in evidence for a story that includes great passion and feelings, and the very few arias are as discordant as the orchestral music. Only the last four scenes of this 22 scene opera offer the heartbreak that has been implied throughout the story but are kept from rising to the surface other than in sudden bursts of chords and drums that are not sustained. Nevertheless, conductor Kazeem Abdullah who is working on this opera for the second time keeps the difficult score together even though the atonal music seems disjointed and spasmodic.

The cast is uniformly excellent in their singing and acting but can’t overcome the opera’s omissions and deficiencies. Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch who has the largest role seems uncomfortable with his characterization of the shy, repressed and awkward Ennis until almost the very end when he discovers he has lost Jack forever and then is allowed to let loose musically. Notably, his early silences and grunts do give way to a more voluble personality as the effect of love works its spell on him. As the cheerful and optimistic Jack Twist, tenor Glenn Seven Allen gives a big performance though he is smaller in stature then Okulitch and is effective throughout in revealing his character’s feelings. This make it easier to emphasize with him in his sense of loneliness and alienation from the world in which he lives.

Glenn Seven Allen as Jack and Daniel Okulitch as Ennis in a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of “Brokeback Mountain” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

As Alma, soprano Heather Buck hits all of her notes beautifully but as her music is very high and her text mostly complaints she can’t help but seem a terrible nag. The opera avoids showing us what Ennis and Alma had before it all went sour. Mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther’s music as Lureen is more varied and therefore more compelling, keeping her high notes in the first half while she is building her life with Jack, and giving her lower notes when her marriage is on the rocks and he has drifted away.

As the men outnumber the women, much of the music is in a low key. Bass Christopher Job who plays the harsh and dictatorial trail boss Aguirre makes a fine impression in his few scenes in the first act, a stand in for the rest of the community we don’t see. In the role of Lureen’s father (originally paired with Aguirre in the world premiere in Madrid), bass Brian Kontes makes his presence felt as a sarcastic, self-made man who has no use for the eternally broke rodeo cowboy Jack prior to his marriage to his daughter.

As Jack’s father, the angry, strict John Twist Sr., tenor Kevin Courtemanche is frightening as an inflexible man who never understood his son, while alto Jenni Bank shows great compassion as his grieving mother in their penultimate scenes.

Altos Melissa Parks as the Bartender in the establishment patronized by Ennis and Jack and Sarah Heltzel as the Saleswoman in the bridal shop where Alma goes to prepare for her wedding, as well as mezzo-soprano Kristee Haney as Alma’s mother are effective in their one-scene roles.

Hilary Ginther as Lureen and Glenn Seven Allen as Jack in a scene from the New York City Opera’s production of “Brokeback Mountain” (Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

The sets by Eva Musil originally designed for the Salzburg production offer their own problems.  The dangerous and sinister Brokeback Mountain as represented in Act One is depicted by a two-tiered set which looks likes two forbidding stone faces, and is backed by a screen of changing clouds. As both this set and screen only cover one third of the stage, they are somewhat dwarfed by the Rose Theater’s wide proscenium. The cloud changes are so subtle in Susan Roth’s lighting design that they do not have much power.

While the mountain design has a dark intensity, it offers little atmosphere to the summer section of the opera when the love affair begins. When Ennis and Jack leave the mountain, the set splits apart effectively, making way for the domestic scenes in Texas and Riverton, Wyoming, which symbolically interrupt the men’s lives together. The second act, however, has ten set changes all pulled and pushed on and off stage by a crew that can be seen in shadow and which make these changes rather slow moving. On the other hand, Musil’s costumes are exactly right, putting the characters in various outfits as time passes and their economic conditions change.

While Brokeback Mountain impresses in its sincerity, it does not move which is a serious problem considering the romantic and tragic plot. Director Jacopo Spirei’s cast is in fine form as singers though the music and its libretto fail to fulfill this story’s potential. Daniel Okulitch and Glenn Seven Allen as the two doomed lovers make indelible impressions of men in a repressed society which does not allow them freedom of expression – even though they are not given the kind of music that can move the heart to tears. Brokeback Mountain which is fine as far as it goes offers the same disappointment of many new modern operas in that its writing falls short of its high-reaching intentions.

Brokeback Mountain (May 31 – June 4, 2018)

New York City Opera

Presented in cooperation with the Salzburg State Opera

Time Warner Center

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-721-6500 or visit http://www.jazz.org

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (555 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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